Prisoners' Due Process

Ensuring Due Process for the Incarcerated

H.R. 4109, The Prison Abuse Remedies Act

In 1996 Congress passed the little known Prison Litigation Reform Act, effectively slamming shut the courthouse doors on prisoners seeking a fair hearing on violations of their religious, due process, free speech, and other fundamental constitutional rights, as well as cases of serious physical and sexual abuse.

This failure of due process can be corrected by H.R. 4109, the Prison Abuse Remedies Act of 2007. This important and timely bill would extend the rule of law to our nation's prisons and jails by making some much needed reforms to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), while maintaining the law's stated purpose.

The PLRA was originally enacted in 1996 to reduce the number of "frivolous" lawsuits being filed by prisoners. Since that time, the law has prevented many seemingly meritorious claims involving violations of religious freedom, due process, free speech, and other fundamental constitutional rights, as well as cases of physical and sexual abuse from ever being given a fair hearing in court.

Two provisions of the PLRA that have proven particularly problematic warrant fixing. First, the law's exhaustion of administrative remedies provision requires prisoners to exhaust their facilities' grievance process no matter how legitimate the reasons for failing to follow the procedures might be. Prison and jail grievance systems have created a baffling maze in which a barely literate, mentally ill, physically incapacitated or juvenile prisoner's procedural misstep in a facility's informal grievance system forever bars even the most meritorious constitutional claims. Moreover, grievance deadlines are often a matter of just a few days, with no exceptions for prisoners who are ill, hospitalized, traumatized or otherwise incapacitated. As a result, serious prison abuses frequently go unheard and unaddressed.

In addition to the problems stemming from the exhaustion provision, the PLRA's "physical injury" requirement has proven to be especially cruel in its application. Under the law, prisoners can be raped and sexually assaulted and not have access to the range of remedies available to most civil rights plaintiffs because some courts have found that they did not suffer actual physical injuries. Other forms of cruel and unusual punishment, such as grossly unsanitary conditions and cavalier disregard of prisoners' medical needs also have been found to not meet the physical injury requirement. However, a violation of a constitutional right or an attack on human dignity does not necessarily entail physical injury.

Over the last twelve years it has become clear that the PLRA is a deeply flawed law that denies incarcerated adults and youth meaningful access to the courts. It is now time for Congress to reevaluate the PLRA and repair its flawed application. As time goes on and serious rights abuses mount and go unheard, the need to fix the PLRA becomes even more urgent. H.R. 4109, the Prison Abuse Remedies Act of 2007, addresses the law's many unintended consequences while maintaining its original intent. This legislation is desperately needed and deserves full support.